In April 2013, I set about gathering the following items: - Eight metres of raw, untreated flax linen - Five plastic mushroom crates - One tall, larder fridge - A 16kg sack each of organic rye, wholegrain, and strong white bread flour - One 50kg cement mixing tub The cost: £38 on Ebay and a healthy dose of entrepreneurial spirit. The mission: to bake and sell 16 loaves of sourdough.
Our good friends at Sweet Thursday Restaurant had agreed to let us use the pizza oven for a trial run on a Saturday morning, provided we were out by 7am so, one morning in April 2013 I woke up at 4.30am, got in my dad’s car and drove 16 unbaked loaves to the restaurant. To my great relief they sprung up on the hot stone and crusted beautifully. I slung the loaves in a sack, got on my bike and dropped a few samples off in cafes in the area. I didn’t have any idea what I was getting myself into.
Fifteen months later, we had repeated this process 64 times – every Saturday, barring one week when I had a funeral to attend. A 5:00am start every Saturday is no joke when you work regular hours from Monday to Friday, and enjoy a Friday night drink. We were at capacity, selling 45 loaves a week and had obtained £30,000 in startup funding, had £4,000 worth of kitchen equipment donated and were about to move into a 40 foot freight container, also donated to us for full-time use. It had been been a mind boggling journey.
As I write this, 25kg of dough is fermenting in two buckets beside me. We’ve had to start using ice cubes in the dough to bring down the temperature. Our first summer in the shipping container, we learnt the hard way. Nothing breaks a baker’s heart like the sound of gas seeping from the loaves when they’re turned out before hitting the oven. You end up with a flat, scraggly mess of a loaf – not the proud and fully-bloomed picture of humankind’s most significant nutritional discovery.
The miracle of wheat fermentation is now capturing the heart of bread enthusiasts around the country. When we set up The Dusty Knuckle, we wanted to enlist wheat’s captivating properties to help us with a big ambition – to inspire young people who lacked the confidence to find legitimate work. I had worked with disillusioned youth for over ten years and found that, without genuine employment prospects, the progress they were able to make in their lives was severely limited.
It hasn’t been an easy journey but we get closer to our goal every day. Today, we’ve had five young people complete work experience in the bakery, two of whom we’ve ended up taking on as employees. We’ve delivered baking workshops for over a hundred kids, and we’ve started teaching adults, too. We’re making a whole lot of bread these days – too much, really. Friday shifts are a bit of an endurance test, but we’re looking into bigger premises now and if we can survive a move, I think we’ll be able to survive anything.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into on that fateful day in April 2013. I’ve barely had a peaceful night’s sleep since. But having learned to try and take each day as it comes, to drink water and breathe, to appreciate the excitement and accept the uncertainty, I’ve benefitted from lessons along the way far beyond flour, water and yeast. And I try to be thankful for this every day.